Guest Post: Itinerancy: A Response

I appreciate the opportunity to offer a response to Drew’s article about the itinerancy. I find things I agree with, and things I disagree with. The dialogue keeps us all thinking about what could be best for the people called United Methodist. My words come from the viewpoint of one of the first group of district superintendents who has lived under the newer task of being a “chief missional strategist.” This is my 5th year appointed as a superintendent.

I will take Drew’s points one at a time:

1) Itinerancy is intended for a very different context than United Methodists (at least in the US) face today. I think it would be more accurate to say, itinerancy was originally designed for a different context. However, the philosophy behind the original context and the present context seems to be a good mix: what is the best strategy to (1) deploy clergy, (2) match giftedness of pastors to the needs of a congregation, and (3) can a third but involved and prayerful party (the cabinet) partner with clergy and congregations in discerning how we can best do evangelism and discipleship in a changing reality? While it is unfortunate that we have come full circle from Wesley’s desire to reform the Anglican Church, it seems that our present manner of supplying clergy to churches may be more appropriate than ever. While Asbury and Wesley might not recognize what itinerancy has morphed into, I believe they would certainly recognize the need for it, more than ever. The need to strategically match pastors and congregations is greater than ever.

2) Itinerancy primarily benefits single white men. I couldn’t disagree more. I doubt that we would have as many female clergy and people of color in pulpits were it not for the itinerancy. We are far, far from perfect in that area, and clergy couples and professional spouses are certainly a challenge. But I know from experience that many congregations would not “take” a woman or person of color as a pastor were it not for the system we presently have. And, I am happy to add, many churches have learned through the itinerancy to change their views regarding women and race. We still have work to do.

3) Itinerancy is designed for short-term service. Again, I think it is more accurate to say, “Itinerancy was originally designed for short-term service.” However, it changed as the church changed. Are there tweaks and adaptations that could make it better? Absolutely. But I know in my conversation with others in different traditions that many “envy” our way of providing pastoral leadership. There is certainly nothing “sacred” about the itinerancy, but I think the charge of “organizational habit that is no longer effective” discounts the ability for adaptability, and disregards the itinerancy’s main function: to deploy clergy who are missionally sent. It is also a reminder to churches and pastor that we are not self-made, but formed and transformed by a community of faith, yoked together with Christ. Together, let us try to perfect it, rather than do away with it.

The Rev’d Sky McCracken, OSL, is District Superintendent of the Purchase District of the Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church.


  1. Sky,

    I agree with every point you make. However, I don’t think the points you make are about itinerancy, per se. I think they are about an appointment process in which the final word for appointments rests with bishop and cabinet, not with congregations and clergy. I think if you replaced the word itinerancy with “episcopal appointment” in most places the former occurs, your argument would be very strong indeed. I think many of us would agree episcopal appointment is both good and indeed essential in our day.

    However, itinerancy and episcopal appointment are actually two very different things. Itinerancy is an assumption about how frequently a different appointment process needs to happen. And it historically, and still today, presumes that this is fairly frequently, at least once per year. Back in the days of Wesley and Asbury, and a bit beyond, of course, the appointment was revisited quarterly!

    I would argue that a frequent revisiting of the appointment to Methodist Societies was probably a good thing, something that matched well the catalytic nature of the leadership of those organizations and the kind of “churn at the top” they may have actually needed to maintain a sharp, disciplined edge.

    The trouble is we have zero Methodist societies. We have instead congregations, which are a very different kind of animal. They really tend not to thrive with significant churn at the top. And, like it or not, if the frequency of appointment remains annual (or more!), even if the appointment doesn’t actually change, we’re generating the potential for churn at the top that injects a level of anxiety into leadership that isn’t so healthy for an organization like a congregation. It’s difficult to commit to building the trust you need as a congregation in your pastor, or as pastor in your community, when you live with the possibility that you may remain where you are at most one year at a time.

    I get it that from a cabinet perspective you probably are not looking to change every pastor’s appointment every year. Indeed, turnover in a given year may be less than 1/4 of the congregations, and may be more driven by retirements, persons going to school, or pastors and congregations that for whatever reasons cannot work well together. What I hope you are hearing, though, is that even if you are looking only at appointments that seem to require immediate change, the result is a system that knows change COULD happen at any time and with little warning. That reality and the anxiety that accompanies it makes it more likely, not less, that pastors and congregations will NOT work out their differences, but seek to use the “annual escape clause” as a way to avoid working through them productively, meaning both congregations and pastors actually become LESS effective over time.

    So let me offer a different approach to itinerancy. What if the system were not set to create (at least) annual changes, but triennial or quadrennial changes. Then what if instead of moving a pastor who may be effective at a current charge to fill a vacancy caused by retirement or conflict, an intentional interim– someone trained for this particular kind of work and committed to it– were appointed to fill out these terms until the next quadrennium?

    We actually have the tools in the Discipline in Par 338.3 to implement a much broader use of intentional interims now. And we wouldn’t need to change the Discipline simply to say “expect your appointment to be good for this quadrennium, and work toward that end, and we’ll fill in where absolutely needed with intentional interim appointments.”

    Might this be a better way to embody an episcopally-appointed itinerant ministry, one that reduces anxiety even as it creates new opportunities to deploy folks specially trained for interim service between longer term ministry appointments?

  2. My question about itinerancy in response to Sky’s post would be: do we really think that the benefits of itinerancy are unique to our particular polity? I doubt that episcopalians, lutherans, presybertians, etc. would claim that their systems exclude prophetic voices, allow for cults of personality, or don’t provide adequate checks and balances for church/episcopal power. I just wonder if an alternative, with similar protections but less drawbacks, is possible. We still have a system treats women, clergy couples, and clergy with professional spouses (or really anyone who might need to be in a given geographical region) as 2nd class citizens. And if you think that the itinerancy protects our female clergy, look at the appointment list for the VA AC and look at how few women are among the top salaries.

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